Today with my workout I watched Eight Men Out, which I have seen before but not for years, probably decades. If you’ve only seen one movie by John Sayles, it’s probably that one. I have seen most of the movies by John Sayles and also read two novels. I love John Sayles. He is one of my favorite directors and filmwriters, and incidentally or perhaps not I also love his two more recent novels. I always feel weird knowing that Eight Men Out is the one people have seen, though, and watching it again showed me why. I feel like a brilliant mosaicist has just handed me one really beautiful pebble.
Mosaicists are quite good at picking pebbles! It’s their job. This one is green. And under another circumstance, he is very well aware that he could make it someone’s eye, or a tree, or a flower. But this one is just one pebble, very smooth, self-contained.
It’s the self-contained part that gets me, because…nothing else Sayles does is like that. Nothing. And I can see the places where he doesn’t go off the map. Arnold Rothstein, Ring Lardner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis–I can almost hear him whispering to himself: not now, John. Reel it in, John. He doesn’t tell you about Joe Jackson’s hometown. About Fred McMullin’s connection to Bill Burns. Not a whisper, even, of the influenza pandemic that directly affected the game, and that’s the thing that made me sit upright and say–aloud to myself, because I am a terrible television companion, I talk to the screen–this is a John Sayles movie? This?
Because he knows all this stuff, and more to the point, he cares about all this stuff. He cares about all the connections, the way that it all fits together. He cares about whether any of the Black Sox were ever on record favoring votes for women. What their various attitudes were to the actually Black people around the stadium. 1988 John Sayles is still John Sayles–he still makes sure there’s a Black person having a line about how it’s the best white team he’s ever seen. But he manages, in this one movie, in 1988, just this, not to go into that man’s story. Not to go into the wives’ stories. To keep the neighborhood kids’ stories only in their emotions about baseball, not their home lives, not their ambitions. Just this.
He makes a baseball movie that is substantially–almost uniquely, among baseball movies–about baseball. He could have passed the Bechdel test in it, if the Bechdel test had existed and if he’d wanted to, by having Helen Weaver and Rose Cicotte talk earnestly about the new tighter-wound baseballs they were talking of using next year–because all of these characters, all of them, eat, sleep, and breathe baseball. I would absolutely have believed it.
I can’t recommend it if you don’t like baseball. Because it’s about class, and it’s about how power structures like these corrupt. It’s about the end of a gilded age, and labor, and who gets left holding the bag, sure. It’s still a John Sayles movie. If you watched it at a John Sayles film fest–oh, what a beautiful thought that is–the kind of people who would show up for that, the kind of people like me, would be stifling full on horror queen shrieks when Kennesaw Mountain Landis came on screen. “He cleared out the Reds during the War”–oh run, children, run, this is not going to be good. Do people who are watching this as their only John Sayles movie know that? I think the message comes through, but…not in the same way without the rest of the body of work. The implication, the denouement, are so feather-light. It feels so strange to take it in isolation like this. To know that for so many people this speck of green is not going on to Matewan, it’s not going on to A Moment in the Sun, it’s not touching Lone Star or Brother or any of that, the mosaic that is class and corruption and America is not part of a leaf, it’s just its own flash and then gone.
And then there’s this: this man’s pebble is a full two-hour feature film. This is what he does for flash fiction.
I wish there was such a thing as a John Sayles film fest. I do. Because it makes me understand a little, though I try to fight it, why people invest personal identity in their fandoms. Because the sort of person who would show up for a whole weekend of John Saylesiana…well, I won’t say I’d like all of those people, but I think they’d inevitably have to have some substantial interests and personality traits overlapping with some of mine. And it would be interesting to talk to other people who have gone all in on all the other much messier works about this one much tidier one.
I believe reining himself in made this more accessible. More popular. I don’t think it’s an accident that the one where he told this story and just this story is the one people know. And it’s a good film, I’m not saying it’s not. But I am left wanting all the rest of the mosaics. I’m left so relieved, so incredibly relieved, that he made all the other films, that he wrote those big messy books, that are full of connection and depth and…a little bit of chaos. Even if it means that I am left flailing trying to get anyone who doesn’t already live here to talk about A Moment in the Sun with me. (“Wanna read a thousand pages of fiction about America in 1905? Hey, where are you going?”) I’m willing to indulge this one cleanly told story. But you can get a cleanly told story almost anywhere. With Sayles I want the whole thing. I know it’s a lot. I’m a lot too, John. I can take more than just the pebble.
It’s a really nice green, though, I’ll give you that.